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It's when golfers of the latter 20th century started using modern equipment -- at least the steel shafted kind, but certainly the titanium and graphite and new types of golf balls -- to play these great golden age courses that they all became not only lovely to look at and strategic, but also fun to play.
I wonder if part of the answer lies in the maintenance practices that were standard for the times of the designs. When the OD G's were designing courses, there was generally one height of cut and then the greens height of cut. You could hit the ball anywhere and at least have some recovery shot options available. Once maintenance standards changed to include thick rough separating out of play areas from Fairway, strategies changed and it became a much more aerial approach. Recovery shots around greens became an exercise in flop shots and bunker shot execution. So, I think once you consider irrigation, mowers and turf grass selections, it becomes a discussion much more complicated than just design.
It's not just bunker design.The best response so far has been "attention to detail." When the power to move big earth came into vogue, the attention to smaller, human-scale detailing was lost. The "something about" Maxwell greens is detail at the human scale which is so important to short game play. After Maxwell and his peers, the emphasis shifted from doing cool finish work with lots of subtle wrinkles, to doing efficient finish work by machine, without wrinkles. The transition was also eased by the fact that few of the guys who built courses in the Golden Age survived in the business into the 1950's, so the sense that subtle finish work was important, was also lost. Mr. Jones' experience in the business was from 1935 onward, when costs were the primary consideration, and his other interests lay in building courses efficiently so he could jet around the world and build more of them.It's not impossible to build cool features at a human scale with modern machinery. It just took a lot of years for anyone to identify that it was important to try.
Sean,I didn't mean to imply classic courses couldn't be shaped. What I think I've learned is that it if a hole needed shaping, it had better be done with some serious intent, focus and care. Otherwise it would fall flat. When the game was exported to the States at the end of the 19th century, early archies had a helluva time making courses interesting, and strategic, because they didn't have links to work on - no heaves and sways of sand and fescue laden land. So they resorted to contrivances to give interest - cop bunkers, ditches, etc. Golden age brought thoughtful design via angled bunkers, contoured greens etc., to overcome this ... and voila ... Now we sit and reflect on those courses of the classic era. But there has been a strong comeback in design, hasn't there?
"Strategy" is highly overrated. More than half the interest of a links course, and half the interest of a Golden Age course, is the randomness of nature It is not about the detailing of the bunkers ... most of those little things never come into play. Contours come into play on every shot. Contours are what's important, and the smallish ones are the most important of all. Mr. Jones and Mr. Wilson somehow missed all that.